Blame and resentment in Kyrgyzstan

Two months after the country’s ethnic violence, the fragile peace is on life support.

Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic violence left hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed [EPA]

Human rights observers have been documenting dozens of cases of torture and arrests of ethnic Uzbeks by Kyrgyz security forces, whose ranks are mostly made up of ethnic Kyrgyz. While the police and military deny the allegations, trust between government and the minority Uzbek population has been broken.

In a recent interview with the AFP news agency, Roza Otunbayeva, the president of Kyrgyzstan, admitted that security services in the south of the country were targeting minority Uzbeks.

“I must tell you that there are some such cases. I can’t deny this. I am in struggle with all my law enforcement myself,” she said.

Yet many ethnic Kyrgyz residents in Osh are supportive of the work of the security services as they conduct their investigation into June’s ethnic violence. While the Osh mayor has publicly signaled his opposition to an expected international Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) police mission that will monitor them.

The OSCE police contingent has been requested by Otunbayeva, and is aimed at boosting trust between the two ethnicities. But with Otunbayeva openly admitting that she is barely in control of her own security forces, and with the Osh local authorities seemingly at odds with her, peace remains on life support as the divide between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks widens.

Pointing the finger

Two months on from the violence in which hundreds of people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed, few ethnic Uzbeks are under any doubt that the titular nation, the Kyrgyz people, have blood on their hands.

But scarcely any Kyrgyz believe that the Uzbeks are simply unfortunate victims. Both sides blame the other for what happened.

While there is some agreement that external forces may have instigated the violence, Uzbek men who defended their neighbourhoods say mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz raided their homes and burned their properties.

Likewise many ethnic Kyrgyz believe Uzbek leaders mobilised their communities, and distributed firearms even before the first shot was fired.

It is appropriate, if troubling, to speak of ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz when attempting to describe what is happening now in southern Kyrgyzstan. Because ethnicity in the context of this conflict is the most important badge a person can wear. It determines where you feel safe enough to travel, and whom you can trust with your opinion.

Part of the story

The military denies allegations of torture but trust has been broken [EPA]

And in choosing their words, journalists have become part of the story. The Kyrgyz government accused the international media of inciting inter-ethnic violence for its coverage of the June events.

In describing what was happening, foreign journalists were accused of failing to report the testimonies and the grief and fear that was being felt simultaneously on the Kyrgyz side. This sentiment is widely held among ethnic Kyrgyz.

If the international media were perceived as one-sided, that was because their gaze turned towards the most visible expression of the violence – the flight of hundreds of thousands of distressed ethnic Uzbeks from their homes towards the border with Uzbekistan.

Then the cameras turned on the burning houses. More than 2,000 of them have been destroyed – almost all of them ethnic Uzbek. The SOS signs painted on the roads of the Uzbek neighbourhoods and photographed from satellites again suggested that the Uzbek communities were on the defensive. The images of the word, ‘Kyrgyz’, painted on the homes of the Kyrgyz residents that were left unscathed also apportioned blame.

Commentators and witnesses who described the violence as genocide enraged Kyrgyz minds. To many, the use of this loaded term is a detestable lie, eclipsing the reality that ethnic Kyrgyz were murdered too.

A refrain I heard several times in conversation with ethnic Kyrgyz is that one of the reasons the true scale of their suffering has failed to be reported is because Kyrgyz people are more restrained in their grief.

“They don’t cry at funerals,” a Kyrgyz social worker told me.

Another reason for the absence of a Kyrgyz narrative of victimhood in international reporting, a Kyrgyz journalist claimed, was that evidence of atrocities committed against ethnic Kyrgyz existed but that people had self-censored fearing that emotive pictures and videos would spark further conflict.

Some can still be found on the internet of ethnic Kyrgyz women who were raped and murdered, or of decapitated bodies. But the websites featuring atrocities committed against ethnic Uzbeks are numerous and the images of Uzbeks burying their dead in mass graves are everywhere.

A blame war drags on in blogs, forums and social networks. The Uzbek singer Yulduz Ismanova released a dirge in the early days after the violence chastising the Kyrgyz nation. The Kyrgyz poet Jenishbek Zhumakadyrov posted an angry response.

Humanitarian effort

Osh is now a different city to the warzone of June. Today, the large white bullet-proofed four-wheel drives of the relief agencies criss-cross the downtown area. Piles of asbestos-ridden rubble line the roads of the Uzbek mahallas, a depressing cancer-risk that scarcely merits attention when the risk of renewed violence is so high.

But these are real concerns for the aid workers who are frequently bewildered by the complexity of their mission. A cast of weary internationals draw on their cigarettes in the rose garden of the UNHCR headquarters, as they digest and share the latest information on their relief operations.

The targets of their efforts are those who have lost their homes – up to 37,000 people according to estimates, most ethnic Uzbek.

But one aid worker said she was seeing more instances of anger directed towards the international community by ethnic Kyrgyz resentful at the attention they believe their undeserving neighbours are receiving.

Ethnic Kyrgyz who have been displaced are also receiving aid. I visited a children’s holiday camp where 29 Kyrgyz families were sheltering. Many of them had lived in Uzbek neighbourhoods and were too afraid to return home. Some of their apartments had been looted although most of them had not been burned.

However, some ethnic Kyrgyz homes were destroyed. On the margins of the city, as I rode on the back of an armoured personnel carrier on curfew patrol one evening, the soldiers pointed to a handful of charred, once affluent households. But as we traversed the city that was all that I was shown.

Shared guilt

The word ‘Kyrgyz’ was painted on the homes of some Kyrgyz residents [EPA]

Shirin Aitmatova is a young Kyrgyz woman with a deep sense of duty. Her father, the celebrated Kyrgyz novelist Chinghiz Aitmatov, was credited with helping to soothe ethnic tensions when violence flared in Osh 20 years ago. She believes she is carrying forward his mission.

The Aitmatov Foundation posts videos of interviews and incidents, many of which detail Kyrgyz suffering. It has a loyal following of supporters. But it is also littered with comments from those who believe her fact-finding distorts the picture.

Shirin’s conviction is that both sides are victims. Her site attempts “to prove that the guilt for the tragedy could and should be attributed to third party involvement”.

“If you would like to count how many heads Uzbeks chopped off and how many ears the Kyrgyz have slashed off … well, you must see it differently than me,” she says.

Such a position, that the numbers in the tragedy do not matter so long as the suffering on both sides is recognised by all, reflects a public billboard reconciliation initiative on the streets of the capital Bishkek which reads: Forgive one another. We are all guilty.

Human rights groups have called repeatedly for an independent international investigation into the June events. The Finnish diplomat Kimmo Kiljunen has been invited by Otunbayeva to conduct an international commission of inquiry. But Kiljunen is still seeking the full backing of international bodies like the OSCE and UN.

If any genuine analyses into what happened in June do emerge, they will be very much concerned with numbers. The collation of evidence will enable patterns to emerge, and conclusions about culpability to be drawn. For in the absence of established truth, perception is what matters now, and it constitutes the widening gap between the communities.

Understanding the numbers is important. And for a country dependent on foreign assistance as it struggles to determine its political future, so is international opinion.

Source: Al Jazeera


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